Today’s #FutureHigherEd post is by Mills College professor Dan Ryan, who teaches a course on how to use design thinking to improve higher education. Prof. Ryan asks whether an idea can be innovative if someone else is already doing it.

It’s a question that is interesting in its own right. The bottom line is that it is not only OK, there’s virtually no other way to make progress. A few years ago, Mike Brown at Brainzooming wrote about how to steal (borrow) creative ideas with a clear conscience:

Ryan’s students went looking for innovative ideas to borrow from other schools and came up with an interesting list, including:

Mike Brown thinks this is the basis for creative instigation, the process of searching intentionally for ideas that can instigate your own creative activities as you sculpt, adapt, and reassemble them into solutions that are meaningful and relevant to your circumstances.

Do you think this is a missed opportunity for educational innovators?  My experience is that ideas originating off-campus (or, shudder, from other industries) have a hard time competing with local ideas.  Think N-I-H: Not Invented Here. Why is the N-I-H syndrome such a powerful force? How much better off would we be if we routinely built on the work of others?

MSR Selingo Demillo

Affordable access to quality higher education has been a cornerstone of American life since the nation’s founding. American higher education is admired around the world as a model of excellence and innovation, but there is a consensus today that higher education in the U.S. is not on a sustainable path. My books Abelard to Apple and Revolution in Higher Education (both from MIT Press) chronicled the events that led to the current state of affairs and describe an optimistic but much changed ecosystem for higher education.

There are no simple solutions to the problems plaguing colleges and universities. A small band of innovators has taken up the challenge, launched a revolution and has started to remake higher education. The result will be a new, more sustainable ecosystem. Technology holds the key to innovation in higher education. I want to describe the world that the innovators are building, using as examples the innovations like the ecosystem pioneered at Georgia Tech, powered by online education, unexpected partnerships, business reinvention and a willingness to disrupt the status quo. What will the University of the 21st Century Look like? It will be very different from the ones we attended.

Join Jeff Selingo, best-selling author of College (un)Bound and There Is Life After College for our on-stage discussion in Redmond at Microsoft Research of what the revolution is all about.

Video courtesy of Microsoft press here.



Ivory Tower (1)
The Ivory Tower, a 2015 Sundance Festival film by Andrew Rossi, is a dramatic and unflinching look at the spiraling cost of higher education. Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times proved that Rossi can disassemble even complex enterprises, so that everyone can see the moving parts. It was a good warm-up for this effort. The similarities are striking.  Jay Hoberman said in his Village Voice Review of Page One: It’s a system at once efficient and cumbersome, ultra-modern yet quaint, that suggests nothing so much as a herd of dinosaurs, oblivious to the threat of impending extinction. And, like Page One, there is a blend of alarmism and genuine fondness for American higher education. Innovation–particularly technological innovation–plays the same role in higher education as it does in other industries that are being disrupted.  It is both the disruptor and the way to avoid disaster. If only leaders can abandon old assumptions.


It dawned on me during the recent saloon brawl at the University of Texas over exactly when and on whose terms President William Powers would leave office that the nation’s top research universities could succumb to the rule of self-interested and unaccountable mobs. Texas joins a growing list of public universities where governing boards have tried to remove presidents—one of the few duties that virtually every state assigns to boards—only to find themselves demonized as cabals. It can’t be a cabal if you are the public authority designated to make those decisions. What began in 2012 as a media spectacle–triggered by the short-lived firing of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and fueled by Twitter and Facebook campaigns worthy of Tahrir Square—has become trendy as the number of legitimate governance decisions undone by academic vigilantism has tacked alarmingly upward.

The Texas case is notable because there is pressure coming from two directions. Heavy-handed political influence from conservative allies of Governor Rick Perry, who are unconvinced of the need for a research mission at UT-Austin and want the university’s Board of Regents to force the flagship university to abandon—or at least starve—it, has so damaged the board that one of them is under investigation for possible impeachment. On the other side, faculty and student groups who want Powers to stay have taken to the media to build public support for their case. Many of them were attending a symposium about online education when a deal that would allow Powers to remain in office was announced. The ensuing celebration was boisterous and probably helped the cause of those who are demanding the impeachment of Perry’s allies.

The dust-up with the Texas Board of Regents is only the most recent example of how difficult university governance has become. Even unremarkable commencement ceremonies came under assault earlier this year as a dozen high-profile speakers were disinvited by university administrators who bowed to pressure groups. What could have riled the unruly mobs? Among those who threatened the sensibilities of the Class of 2014 were IMF Director Christine Lagarde and a critic of radical Islam who had survived mutilation in fundamentalist Muslim East Africa. All were excoriated in public. Faculty groups, student newspapers, bloggers, and anti-defamers rose up in protest that views so divergent from their own should be expressed under a banner proclaiming truth or veritas, or something like that.

So much for academic diversity and the fearless band of heroes and martyrs that, Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins—the first American research university—promised would “prosecute learning” regardless of consequences. It is probably not what John Adams had in mind in 1780 when he wrote in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of the moral duty of society to cherish the interests of “seminaries of learning.” It does not cherish their interests to pay attention to the digital-age equivalent of epithets scrawled on subway walls. But that is what, increasingly, masquerades as academic governance. Unchecked, it is a trend that imperils ours, the best universities in the world.

Religious institutions aside, there are really only two ways to run a university. In Europe, universities are state-run affairs. Professors are civil servants, and Ministries of Education make all of the important decisions. University presidents and other administrators are chosen in faculty elections, but they are in truth labor leaders who are beholden to the narrow interests of professors, not to students or even to society. The sorry state of European research universities (despite a five hundred year head start, only eleven of the top fifty research universities in the world are European; thirty-one are North American) is a testament to the failure of that model.

American universities (especially public universities) were conceived differently with appointed trustees or regents who are accountable to society. In the U.S. system, boards have ultimate legal authority to choose top administrators, approve faculty appointments and guarantee academic freedom. Presidents are then given considerable autonomy in the day-to-day running of their institutions. That autonomy is shared with faculty members who are expected to make expert decisions about academic matters in a system of governance outlined in a 1915 declaration of academic freedom that marked the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Autonomy is so ingrained that shared governance is sometimes willfully–almost comically–misconstrued to mean that administrators work for the faculty and that governing boards are at best irrelevant to a university’s mission.

In normal times it probably does not matter much, but these are not normal times. Forty million Americans owe 1.2 trillion dollars in student loans. One in seven borrowers defaults within two years of leaving college. Tuitions are rising at twice the rate of inflation while family incomes are flat. Americans have lost confidence that affordable, excellent college education is within their reach. Under pressure from both the left and the right, political correctness has become a bludgeon used to beat back the free exchange of divergent views on campus. Change is needed, and there are transformational ideas that can help universities get back on track. But, as former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt has pointed out, change will be slowest at the institutions where shared governance is strongest. The mobs could care less.

Who has the interest of society uppermost? Presidents are accountable, but most have careers to advance. They have powerful incentives to behave like stewards of the status quo. Not faculty. Many are deluded about the need for someone to be in charge at all. Not students themselves. They have even narrower interests and lack perspective. The AAUP’s 1915 declaration acknowledges that governing boards are responsible for society’s interests. Not all boards are good at that, and the bad ones should be replaced. It is not clear what led to the Texas Regents’ decision to fire William Powers. Conflicts with trustees can simmer for years before boiling over and leading to a president’s ouster. The publicly stated rationale for a firing is not always the real one, but Governor Perry’s fascination with a shortsighted agenda promoted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation certainly played a role. As bad as those ideas would be for a great university, it is hard to argue that the long-term interests of institutions like the University of Texas are served by polling unaccountable mobs.

College presidencies are derailed all the time. There were dozens of firings last year. Hundreds of people who represent unpopular points of view made commencement addresses. So why such a ruckus over a Texas firing or Christine Lagarde’s commencement invitation from Smith College? Mobs have become well-heeled Internet marketing experts. It is no accident that supporters of William Powers were in contact with Teresa Sullivan’s supporters at The University of Virginia, where the art of demonizing and isolating board members was perfected. It is only a matter of time before roving bands of torch-waving villagers realize that by storming the gates they can impose their interests and the well-armed mobs start roaming the Halls of Ivy.

The result will be the steep descent of the best American universities into a soup of international mediocrity when global leadership is needed. The contract between academia and society is strong in this country. It was renewed in President John Bascom’s 1879 “Wisconsin Idea” that spoke of the university’s duty to reach into every family, and Rafael Reif’s soaring 2013 MIT inaugural that warned of the dangers to society of driving an economic wedge between universities and the American public. It is diminished every time a mob is rewarded for undermining legitimate authority. Universities are a national treasure to be cherished, and strengthening the quality of their governing boards also strengthens the social contract. Mobs like to attack strong boards as corporatist, but there is nothing corporatist about acting to ensure that institutions are healthy and vibrant. There is no sport in using Twitter to amplify personal attacks on trustees and administrators. It is a celebration of mob rule.

Backer Jacob  envy

The next verse of the epic poem “Year of the MOOC” will almost certainly be a recounting of a fall from grace if I am correctly reading my recent discussions with dozens of institutional leaders. Whether there will be enlightenment and ultimate redemption is less clear at this point, but what should be a path forward for thousands of institutions could just as easily lead to despair and ruin.

Not because MOOCs are a bad idea, mind you. If there were ever a confluence of innovations that could perfect learning, the simultaneous maturing of  MOOCs, social networking,  and big data are it.  Daphne Koller makes the point in her now ubiquitous Coursera speech: We have known for thirty years (since Benjamin Bloom’s landmark paper “The Two Sigma Problem”) that the master classroom is a way to universally improve learning when compared to traditional classrooms.  The only thing holding us back was the cost of personalizing the learning experience for each student.  MOOCs allow master classrooms be operated effectively for large numbers of students.  I just spoke with edX’s Anant Agrwawal, and he cites a half-dozen other research results confirming better learning enabled by MOOCs.That’s the innovation, and that’s what makes MOOCs such a great idea.

The very existence of MOOCs could be a pathway to think about value in a new way, to looking at the constraints that existed before Udacity, Coursera, and edX and wondering what the next world would be like. It may not turn out to be paradise but it will be a world without those constraints. Instead, too many institutions are reverting to the seven deadly sins of higher education.  Beginning with envy.

In Abelard to Apple I blamed envy for many poor decisions by otherwise insightful academic leaders. Higher education has opted into a destructive, needlessly competitive class system in which schools at the top of the hierarchy are chased by everyone else in a rigged game that ultimately hurts students. If you are a state school, you envy one of the famous public research universities. Technical universities envy MIT and CalTech, Liberal arts colleges envy whichever institution is  at the top of the pyramid whose riches they covet. It is institutional envy pure and simple.  It has been the ruination of hundreds of otherwise promising colleges and universities and has helped drive American higher education to the brink of unsustainability.

Here is an excerpt of my recent conversation with someone in a senior leadership role at a college — in the Middle to use Abelard to Apple terminology —  that is beginning to produce its own MOOCs:

Q: Why are you producing your own MOOCs?

A: Why should we let [deleted] do all the MOOCs? We are just as good as them. Why let them get all the credit?

There are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the common thread is that this school is trying to buy its way into a game that is rigged against them.  At the very least they will spend a lot of money (that they do not have) to produce a lot of MOOCs (that are not very good).  Yes, there will be a few that are really great, but those few do not justify the level of spending they are thinking about.  Most importantly they will fail because they have defined success as enrolling 100,00 students or more. Why is this an important number:  because [deleted] enrolls 100,000 students in its courses.

It’s a small leap to consider the effect of other deadly sins:

  • Lust: “100,00 students?  Wow!”
  • Gluttony: “I want them all”
  • Greed: “That should be worth a lot of money.”
  • Pride: “No one can do it better.”

There is no agreement on the the sins that belong on the list. I took theology courses from Thomistic scholars who had a decidedly medieval view of these matters. Aquinas for example was not a big fan of including sloth (“I don’t have to teach?”)  in the list preferring instead to go for a more popular malady afflicting monks who spent their lives in prayerful isolation (“I am so tired of dealing with unprepared, unmotivated undergraduates”).

Nor is there agreement on how tightly bound together these things are.  Can you have envy without pride?

Who is virtuous in this new world? At the risk of promoting unwanted scrutiny, I would have to say that San Jose State University is doing the right thing.  San Jose State decided to conduct an experiment in blended learning using the edX version of the MIT 6.002 course entitled Circuits and Systems. It could not have been an easy choice.  SJSU faculty had to sacrifice their hallowed position on the stage and redefine their roles in the classroom:

SJSU students have been viewing and using online materials as homework, including lectures, quizzes and virtual labs available through the edX platform. Then they go to class to work through problem sets with their instructor, thereby flipping the conventional approach of lectures in class and problem sets at home.

Initial reports are encouraging.  A course that historically flushes out 40% of the enrolled students in the traditional format, retains 90% in the flipped format.  Professors and students alike had to adjust, but maybe that is the price of virtue.  It is a price worth paying, because simply lusting after the 100,000 students is not a strategy that will be rewarded in this pre-MOOC world  or the next.